Darlington Preview: NASCAR Returns

Darlington Preview: NASCAR Returns

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

After an eight-race layoff due to the Coronavirus pandemic, NASCAR returns to action this weekend with a series of makeup races.  The nation's premier stock car racing association is the first major sport to return from the shutdowns of March and April.  First up on the new schedule is Darlington Raceway.  

The South Carolina oval will play host to the first of two events in the revamped schedule.  Sunday, May 17, will be the Darlington 400 and the following Wednesday, May 20, will be the Darlington 310.  This unique approach of NASCAR holding doubleheaders will help the sanctioning body maintain it's typical 36-event regular schedule. 

 Since we'll be racing twice in four days at the same track, we'll handle the fantasy racing predictions in a two-for-one manner.  The following article will help you to select drivers for both races. 

Darlington 400 & Darlington 310

The Track Too Tough to Tame, otherwise known as Darlington Raceway, is the site of our first racing action since NASCAR was halted in mid-March at Atlanta.  Darlington Raceway is an egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval, and is really unlike any other race track on the circuit.  It's not an intermediate oval and not a superspeedway, but somewhere in between.  

The course has two distinctly different sets of turns.  Turns 3 and 4 are much narrower than turns 1 and 2.  This is a challenging aspect for crew chiefs as the handling setup for the stock cars is a bit more complex.  You have to find a happy

After an eight-race layoff due to the Coronavirus pandemic, NASCAR returns to action this weekend with a series of makeup races.  The nation's premier stock car racing association is the first major sport to return from the shutdowns of March and April.  First up on the new schedule is Darlington Raceway.  

The South Carolina oval will play host to the first of two events in the revamped schedule.  Sunday, May 17, will be the Darlington 400 and the following Wednesday, May 20, will be the Darlington 310.  This unique approach of NASCAR holding doubleheaders will help the sanctioning body maintain it's typical 36-event regular schedule. 

 Since we'll be racing twice in four days at the same track, we'll handle the fantasy racing predictions in a two-for-one manner.  The following article will help you to select drivers for both races. 

Darlington 400 & Darlington 310

The Track Too Tough to Tame, otherwise known as Darlington Raceway, is the site of our first racing action since NASCAR was halted in mid-March at Atlanta.  Darlington Raceway is an egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval, and is really unlike any other race track on the circuit.  It's not an intermediate oval and not a superspeedway, but somewhere in between.  

The course has two distinctly different sets of turns.  Turns 3 and 4 are much narrower than turns 1 and 2.  This is a challenging aspect for crew chiefs as the handling setup for the stock cars is a bit more complex.  You have to find a happy "middle ground" for your handling set up so that one set of turns doesn't upset the car.  All this combined with the 23-25-degree variable banking and wide racing grooves makes for some of the most exciting, side-by-side racing that NASCAR has to offer. 

The first thing that the casual fan will notice when watching a race at Darlington Raceway is how high the cars run through the turns.  On most ovals, the preferred line is low and tight to the inside lines, but Darlington is a very unique facility.  Most drivers prefer to run the high line right out next to the wall and carry that momentum into the straight-aways as they accelerate coming out of the turns.  This historic oval's unique configuration almost always makes the high groove the fastest way around the race track.  Since we're returning from an eight-race layoff, it will be interesting to see how quickly some of these rusty drivers venture out next to the looming Darlington wall.  A miscalculation on this oval can lead to hard contact and a damaged race car.  Nerves of steel will be employed immediately upon NASCAR's return to action.

Since the NASCAR Cup Series has only raced on four tracks to this point, those results will not be of much help in figuring out Darlington Raceway this weekend.  While Darlington is a superspeedway, the racing is not like any other superspeedway on the circuit.  So this for this race, the loop data from Darlington Raceway will be an extremely important component in developing a list of fantasy racing drivers.  Since we're coming off a long layoff there will be no hot streak to turn to, so historical data is going to play a major component of our fantasy racing plays.  There is small group of drivers that perform well at the South Carolina oval, and as you will see in the table below, they're quite easy to identify.  The loop stats in the table below cover the last 15 years or 15 races at Darlington Raceway.

DRIVER  AVG. 
FINISH
QUALITY
 PASSES
# of FASTEST 
        LAPS
LAPS 
 LED
LAPS IN
 TOP 15
DRIVER
RATING
Erik Jones4.7135         66791,062110.8
Denny Hamlin7.8487        2825624,567106.3
Kyle Busch11.1561        3117164,862105.9
Kevin Harvick12.5477        2845674,334100.7
Brad Keselowski10.7293        1592932,88299.5
Martin Truex Jr.11.6447        2612323,68199.2
Jimmie Johnson13.8427        2923273,77697.8
Matt Kenseth11.4381        1491523,12991.0
Ryan Newman12.2404         741733,73389.9
Joey Logano16.5332         811032,81789.3
Kurt Busch16.5517        2231784,08388.6
Chase Elliott 17.2177         6191,20383.4
Austin Dillon12.5126         18087977.3
William Byron28.079         13060476.3
Clint Bowyer21.6315        103172,35173.4
Chris Buescher14.891          6068273.0
Ryan Blaney20.450         29034468.6
Aric Almirola19.6122         12053867.3
Ty Dillon18.034          3013163.3
Daniel Suarez26.050          4032362.7

When we take a look at the loop stats in the table above, we immediately notice that there is quite a bit of parity between the different manufacturers and super stables in the NASCAR Cup Series at Darlington.  Ford and Toyota have each visited victory lane in the last three races at the South Carolina oval.  Chevrolet has been shut out since 2014, but that could change as soon as this weekend. Toyota drivers have had the most success at the facility in the last few seasons.  Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have racked up four of the last five victories at the 1.366-mile oval.  With the way these Toyota drivers were performing prior to the shutdown, Darlington will be a welcome sight for this struggling manufacturer and camp.

NASCAR's top division typically competes at Darlington Raceway just once a season, so it will be a rare sight to see the teams racing not just once, but twice the span of four days at this historic oval.  The Sunday event will be raced in the mid-afternoon and heat of the day, while the Wednesday event will be run in the cooler air of early evening that following Wednesday.  While our driver group will vary a bit from each, they won't venture too far off due to night/day racing at Darlington.  

The lessons learned on Sunday will help teams to fine tune and set up even better for Wednesday's Darlington 301.  Certainly Erik Jones' and Kyle Busch's dominance at this oval last September will get a lot of scrutiny this week as we lead up to the resumption of NASCAR racing action.  The picks below are our best bets for fantasy racing success in the Darlington Raceway double header.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Busch – Busch's career stats at the Darlington oval may not be his greatest, but it's his most recent work at this oval that we need to pay attention to this weekend.  The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has been strong the last few seasons at this facility.  He has second-, seventh- and third-place finishes in his last three trips to South Carolina.  Busch won this event in 2008, and he's led well over 700 laps for his career at the Darlington track.  Seven of his last eight trips to the South Carolina raceway have netted Top-10 finishes, and his start in this event one year ago yielded 118 laps led and a strong third-place finish.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led a lot of laps at the Darlington oval, but he's found it tough securing the victories.  That could change at either of the first two Darlington races.

Kevin Harvick – It took the Stewart Haas Racing star several years to finally nab his first Darlington victory, but Harvick finally got that monkey off his back in this event in 2014.  He won the pole position, led 238 laps and made the field look helpless in dominating his way to that win.  For what Harvick lacked in excellence earlier in his career at this oval, he's very quickly making up for in the present.  The veteran driver now has three poles, one win, one runner-up finish and well over 500 laps led in his last six Darlington starts.  This high-groove style of racing is clearly warming up to Harvick and his No. 4 SHR team.  The seven-race Darlington Top-10 streak that Harvick carries into this weekend's action cannot be overlooked.   

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is a top play to consider as NASCAR heads back into action at Darlington Raceway.  The big ovals were kind to the No. 11 Toyota team prior to the break in action.  The veteran driver had a Daytona 500 win and a sixth-place finish at Fontana.  Hamlin has impeccable Darlington stats with two wins and seven Top-5 finishes in 14-career starts.  That works out to a stellar 50-percent Top-5 rate at this unique oval.  With over 550 laps led in 14-career starts, it's clear that Hamlin knows how to race the Track Too Tough to Tame.  He's only finished outside the Top 20 once at this track in his career, and that's some peace of mind as well.  The JGR star has been keeping his skills sharp with iRacing during the break, so Hamlin should hit the ground running in our first race back.      

Brad Keselowski – The Penske Racing star has 11-career starts at Darlington Raceway, and the results have been considerably improving in recent seasons.  Keselowski won this event two years ago for his first-career Darlington victory.  He's led 289 combined laps in his last five Darlington races, and Keselowski has claimed Top 10's in four of those five outings.  His consistency at this oval right now is impressive.  The driver of the No. 2 Ford started on the outside pole at Darlington last season, led 19 laps and marched to an impressive fifth-place finish in the Bojangles' Southern 500.  That's a very good impression to leave heading into NASCAR's return to this very fast oval. 

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Martin Truex Jr. – The Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 team stumbled out of the gates in the first four events.  The break for Coronavirus was likely a good pause for this driver and team to regroup.  The departure of crew chief Cole Pearn has likely had a greater affect than expected.  Truex's Darlington history shows one win and six Top 10's in 14-career starts or a steady 43-percent rate.  He's led 232 laps at this South Carolina oval, and that's a positive indicator.  130 of those have come in just the last four events, so Truex has been near the front a lot of late at Darlington.  The motivation to resume racing, and to improve performance were likely a big motivator during the layoff.  Unlike many of his competitors, Truex did not participate in any iRacing.  We suspect he spent a lot of the time in the shop with his crew chief and race team.    

Joey Logano – Logano was one of the hottest drivers in the series before the break.  The first four events saw him nab two victories and climb to second in the championship point standings.  The Penske Racing star will look to pick up where he left off in mid-March before racing was suspended.  Darlington Raceway has been a mixed bag for Logano over his 11-season career. He owns five Top-10 finishes in those 11-career starts for a respectable 46-percent rate.  However, Logano has been much sharper in recent Darlington outings.  He collected a runner-up finish in the Southern 500 in 2018 and that gives the No. 22 Ford team three Top-5 finishes in their last five Darlington starts.  Trends are looking good at this oval for Logano.    

Erik Jones – The young Joe Gibbs Racing driver makes the solid plays list this weekend, and for good reason.  Jones has been uber-consistent in all three of his starts at Darlington Raceway.  The No. 20 team was struggling prior to the break in action, but this event at this facility is likely what the doctor order to jump-start this driver and team.  Jones won last season's Southern 500, so he's the last winner at this challenging oval.  He also has fifth- and eighth-place finishes in his other two starts at this facility since 2017.  The high-groove style of racing and rim-riding next to the outside wall really appeals to this young driver.  The Darlington 400 and the Darlington 301 just days apart give Jones the opportunity to rebound solidly after the long layoff. 

Kurt Busch – Busch was riding a two-race Top-10 streak prior to the Coronavirus break.  His strong third-place finish at Fontana was followed by another great sixth-place effort at Phoenix.  He'll look to carry that momentum into the Darlington Raceway doubleheader.  Darlington has been a real mixed bag for this veteran driver over the years, but has been turning much more positive in recent seasons.  Busch finished seventh in this event last season, and that extended his current Darlington Top-10 streak to three races.  His career-long Top-10 rate still stands at a lowly 39-percent, but don't let that fool you.  Busch will be fast and competitive in Sunday's return to action at the Track Too Tough to Tame.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Darlington & solid upside

Ryan Blaney – He was a bit snake bitten in the luck department before the layoff, but the No. 12 Ford team had great speed, and that always cures many ills.  Blaney is a bit of a wildcard entering this twin-event.  His five-career starts at Darlington Raceway have only netted three Top-15 finishes, so this track has not been a place of vast success for the Penske Racing driver.  However, we have to put that in context.  Blaney has been gradually improving in his Darlington starts, and we typically only race at this oval once a season.  It takes a bit of time to improve, and this young driver has put in that time.  This doubleheader gives Blaney the chance to further improve and snag a couple great finishes to resume the season.               

Jimmie Johnson – The seven-time Cup Series champion is off to a great start this season, and hoping the down time didn't break up his momentum.  Johnson is a driver to watch closely in the Darlington double header.  The last five years of racing at this Track Too Tough to Tame he's had his struggles.  However, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet is a three-time Darlington winner and he sports a more-than-respectable 57-percent Top-10 rate at Darlington Raceway.  Johnson's strong fifth- and seventh-place finishes at the ovals of Las Vegas and Fontana before the break are a good barometer of where this team was on the mid-size ovals prior to the break.     

Matt Kenseth – The recently retired veteran returns to action this weekend.  Kenseth takes over the No. 42 Chevrolet of Chip Ganassi Racing after that team let Kyle Larson go during the shutdown.  The 48-year-old former NASCAR champion will be the season-long replacement driver in the team's Chevy Camaro.  Kenseth was a steady Darlington performer, especially later in his career.  His only career win here came in 2013, and Kenseth nabbed five Top-10 finishes in his last seven starts at the challenging oval for a ripe 71-percent Top-10 rate.  The veteran hasn't raced in NASCAR's top division since the end of the 2018 season, so there will be some rust.  But he presents intriguing fantasy racing value in this strong race team.

Clint Bowyer – While Bowyer provided us with many laughs iRacing during the shutdown, it's time to get back to the serious business of racing this week.  The Darlington track will provide a good test for the No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing team.  Historically, this has not been one of Bowyer's better ovals.  In fact, he's really struggled here over the years.  But we simply have to look back on last September's Southern 500 to see Bowyer's career-best Darlington finish of sixth-place to get some hopeful vibes.  It was just his second-career Top 10 at Darlington, but the notes are fresh and the deed was done in the current stock car configuration.  Both are net positives to take away.  Bowyer's fifth-place finish in our last race at Phoenix before the break is another positive to take away as well.      

Austin Dillon – The historical stats are a good indicator of potential this weekend after a long layoff.  Dillon's are pretty sturdy and date back far enough to define a good trend line.  The Richard Childress Racing veteran has six-career starts at the Track Too Tough to Tame.  Dillon has netted one Top-5 and two Top-10 finishes in those six starts, along with four Top-15 finishes.  His start in last September's Southern 500 fetched an eye-opening 10th-place finish for the No. 3 RCR team.  With only one finish here outside the Top 20, Dillon carries a dependable 12.5 average finish at Darlington Raceway.  The high-groove racing style obviously appeals to the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet.     

Matt DiBenedetto – The Coronavirus break came at a bad time for DiBenedetto and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team.  The new driver of the No. 21 Ford was settling well into his new team after just four races.  DiBenedetto had a brilliant runner-up finish at Las Vegas and a pair of Top 15's at Fontana and Phoenix.  The ninth-place points position was a great mark to achieve through the opening four events.  He'll look to pick up where he left off in March.  DiBenedetto has just five-career Cup Series starts at Darlington Raceway.  However, his last look at this speedway was one to remember.  He started 19th on the grid in last September's Southern 500 and peddled to a very impressive eighth-place finish.  You know he'll be eager to follow up that performance this Sunday afternoon.

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Ryan Newman – This is not as much a flop play as it is a check status play.  Newman is returning from a very serious head injury and hasn't been inside a race car since the last lap of the season-opening Daytona 500.  The Roush Fenway Racing veteran is a big question mark coming to South Carolina this weekend.  Newman has a great career history at the Track Too Tough to Tame.  He's fetched seven Top-5 and 13 Top-10 finishes there in his 21 starts.  That's a strong 33- and 62- percent Top-5 and -10 rate.  Two of his last four Darlington starts have netted Top-10 finishes.  Typically, this is a facility to lean on drivers like Newman, but we would urge caution deploying him in fantasy lineups until we know how much rust is potentially present. 

Daniel Suarez – Coming off three finishes outside the Top 20 before the break, the season had not started well for the new driver of the No. 96 Toyota.  Suarez was struggling in his new surroundings, and the break came at a good time.  Darlington Raceway has not been an oval of success for this young driver.  Suarez has two finishes outside the Top-25 and one inside the Top 15 in his three-career starts at this facility.  That works out to a subpar 26.0 average finish across the span.  The Gaunt Brothers Racing driver will look to hit the reset button on his season in this week's Darlington double header, but the risks far outweigh the potential for success with this driver and small race team.           

Aric Almirola – The Stewart Haas Racing veteran was racing well prior to the NASCAR outage.  A pair of eighth-place finishes at Fontana and Phoenix prior to the break had boosted him in the point standings.  The No. 10 SHR team will hope to carry over the two-month layoff and crack a line-drive double in the Darlington Raceway double header.  However, it will be a tall task for the veteran driver.  Almirola's eight-career Darlington starts have only yielded two Top-15 finishes vs. six finishes outside the Top 15.  The average finish stands at a lofty 19.6.  Almirola needs to turn in a better-than-typical Darlington performance this weekend, but that may not be very likely given the long layoff and down time from racing.

Chase Elliott – The Hendrick Motorsports youngster is looking to recapture the momentum he had just before the Coronavirus break.  With a pair of Top 10's just before the break, Elliott had surged up to third-place in the championship points.  Darlington Raceway has been stingy to this point in his Cup Series career.  He has five-career starts at Darlington Raceway.  Elliott has nabbed a pair of Top-10 finishes in those outings, with his best-career performance coming two seasons ago when he brought home a surprising fifth-place finish.  The young driver finished 19th here last September, and that's one of three finishes outside the Top 10 for him here.  With an average finish of 17.2 at the South Carolina oval, Elliott is not a top tier driver this weekend.  Resist the urge to take that gamble. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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